Archivists on the Issues: Answering the call for inclusivity

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from regular writer Summer Espinoza, her last for the year. Summer is the digital archivist at California State University, Dominguez Hills where she is working on a California State University Archives project.

This is my third and final blog post for the Archivists on the Issues series. It would be more scholarly of me to share research, but I hope you (reader) can excuse my personal, introspective and non academic discourse here.

One of the most important attributes I carry in this life is that of a brown-skinned human (insert Library of Congress subject headings as you please). My brown skin has guided my experiences in my academic and personal education. My research interests today are guided by the way external and self identifiers have constructed and shaped my life and career. If you are midway through a sigh right now, I empathize. I sometimes catch myself with this same reaction because, in fact, I sometimes cringe at the fact I am so invested in this identity politic.

My duties as an archivist have guided me towards descriptive cataloging, perhaps by the same token of the fluidity and interpretive nuances of identity politics. Let me relate this conversation to my current work with the California State University System Archives Digitization Project. I have created subject headings for persons of color and I have also made use of the equally dodgy “Caucasians” subject heading. My methodology (if you can call it that) when creating a subject heading for ethnicity (non- “Caucasian”), is to look for published articles, newsletters, or records of events in which a notable person has been commended for work in a community, often by a community with which they identify. I take these cues and with all the best intentions, I apply a Library of Congress or local vocabulary term, and hope for the best. This has not, however, caused me to create particularly accurate or authoritative headings, for example Mexican American, Chicano and/or Latino and Black or African American, Chinese American or Asian American.

The “Caucasians” subject heading has given me extreme pause. I approached the task of descriptive cataloging for photographic prints of European Americans with an apology first: “I’m sorry I am labeling you this way.” Why am I sorry? I am sorry because in the back of my mind is this little kernel of negativity toward the word “Caucasian.” Why am I using this word in the first place?

Up to the point of this project, I had not fully acknowledged the history of this word, and upon further investigation I found the term is rooted in eighteenth century racial classification. How and why am I blindly following the notorious Library of Congress (out)dated subject headings? Not to mention the word as both anachronistic, archaic, and still very much alive in our modern societal vocabularies in human classifications.

Much like my first post, I express these reflective (and yes, negative) experiences to better understand the role of my own history and how it interacts with my professional responsibilities.

In a recent listserv call for panel proposals for a visual arts conference, a cataloger posed some very compelling questions about the ways in which descriptive cataloging of an artist interacts with the cataloging of their artistic works.

This led me to more questions, but primarily this one: why do we as archivists believe that the (best) answers to our initiatives to be inclusive and diverse rest solely in our professional circles? Did we and do we currently believe that we are the best and only source of expertise in the digital environment? Do we not look outward to other disciplines for marketing and development, content expertise, and so forth? Are we the first group of professionals to tackle inclusivity? What do we generally understand about cultural inclusivity on a professional level, and are we trained and educated enough to move beyond initiatives and policies that do not mean much to the everyday archivist?

Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too quickly as we circulate these documents amongst our ranks, let us share our shortcomings for the better.

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